Year in NZ politics: Promises, scandals, progress

5:13 pm on 9 January 2019

By Peter Wilson*

Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern with MPs Kelvin Davis, right, and Grant Robertson.

Jacinda Ardern with MPs Kelvin Davis, right, and Grant Robertson. Photo: AFP

Analysis - The government is through its first year with the coalition firmly intact and the prime minister as popular as she was before the election.

Jacinda Ardern has climbed an astonishingly steep learning curve. Thrust into her party's leadership just weeks before the election, she has grown into the job and now handles it with confidence at home and self-assured elegance abroad.

Ms Ardern may lack the formidable presence of Helen Clark but she makes up for that by doing it her way, with kindness and a caring approach.

It helps carry her through the difficult patches.

And she's fireproof - there isn't anyone remotely likely to challenge her for the leadership, which she will almost certainly hold during the life of this Labour-led government.

There were doubts, in the beginning, about whether she and NZ First leader Winston Peters could forge a successful team. They have, and Mr Peters' vast experience has helped Ms Ardern negotiate some difficult territory.

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Winston Peters Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

In Parliament he is her champion, leaping to her defence when opposition MPs start getting rough with her.

The government began 2019 with a largely inexperienced Cabinet and an ambitious First 100 Days programme to implement. Parliament and the Beehive were frantic places but it pushed the legislation through.

National's tax cuts were scrapped and in their place the Families Package was rolled out. Winter energy subsidies for pensioners came in and the billion-dollar-a-year regional development fund was signed off.

During the year the year the government set up its tax working group after promising there would be no changes during its first term in office.

Another flagship policy was introduced, making the first year of tertiary education free. At the beginning of this year, it hadn't made much difference to enrolments and the government said it would take time to become effective.

Foreigners were banned from buying existing homes, the sale of state houses ended and the Pike River Recovery Agency was set up to supervise re-entry to the mine.

Ms Ardern took personal responsibility for reducing child poverty and holds the Cabinet portfolio.

The promise of KiwiBuild - 100,000 affordable homes in 10 years - began to deliver, but only just. It's the one flagship policy that could damage the government, and evidence of success is so far elusive.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson presented a cautious Budget in May with an emphasis on rebuilding public services.

With the economy running well and the tax take up he was able to forecast strong surpluses which can be harvested in the next election year.

Labour MP Clare Curran in the House

Clare Curran resigned after being stripped of some of her portfolios. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

No government gets through a year with nothing going wrong and for Ms Ardern it was two of her ministers.

Clare Curran was the first, her woeful response to opposition questions in Parliament about meetings she hadn't revealed and her fumbling presence in front of the media making her hold on her portfolios untenable.

Ms Ardern stripped her of some of them and Ms Curran resigned from the Cabinet citing unrelenting stress.

Meka Whaitiri was the second, accused of assaulting her press secretary. Ms Ardern stood her down and, after an inquiry, sacked her.

National accused her, with some justification, of taking too long to hold them to account.

Iain Lees-Galloway and Karel Sroubek

Iain Lees-Galloway and Karel Sroubek. Photo: RNZ / Carmen Bird Photography

One of her senior ministers, Iain Lees-Galloway, began working on reforming workplace laws. Labour had promised to scrap the hated 90-day trials and return workers' rights to where they were before nine years of National government meddling.

He was only partially successful. NZ First, with its only serious exercise of coalition muscle-flexing, insisted on making the legislation more business-friendly and, among other changes, 90-day trials were banned only in large businesses.

Prime MInister Jacinda Ardern with  daughter Neve and partner Clarke Gayford during the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit at the UN in New York.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern with daughter Neve and partner Clarke Gayford during the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit at the UN in New York. Photo: AFP

Ms Ardern brought forth baby Neve and put New Zealand briefly on the world stage. Her family visits to Buckingham Palace before the birth, and to the United Nations after it, were sparkling public relations successes.

Workplace law reform wasn't the only problem Mr Lees-Galloway had. Also holding the immigration portfolio, he made the unfathomable decision to grant residence to convicted Czech drug smuggler Karel Sroubek.

That rapidly came apart under opposition scrutiny and the decision was reversed. At year end, the opposition was still hammering the Government over it.

Opposition in the spotlight

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Simon Bridges and Jami-Lee Ross. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

On the other side of the House, National was in the unusual position of being a popular party with an unpopular leader.

Simon Bridges just wasn't cutting it with the public and murmurings of discontent began. It's still not clear why people haven't taken to him, in the same way as it was never clear why voters didn't like Andrew Little.

Then he was hit by the worst scandal anyone could remember - Jami-Lee Ross.

It began with the leak of Mr Bridges' expense claims and exploded into a meltdown when Mr Ross accused his leader of being a corrupt politician.

Expelled from the caucus, he became an independent MP with his proxy vote held by NZ First. Mr Bridges just doesn't know when or whether Mr Ross is going to erupt again.

It was an appalling mess and Mr Bridges handled it as best he could.

But he now carries some heavy baggage and almost certainly won't lead National into the next election.

The media considers Mr Bridges a dead man walking, which is usually fatal. There is not, however, an outstanding candidate at present with enough support to oust him.

On the coalition benches, NZ First had a good year as a solid coalition partner and there has been a significant shift in the way the party presents itself.

Mr Peters isn't the only player in a one man band. Shane Jones, the regional development minister, has a profile that almost rivals his leader.

Ron Mark holds the defence portfolio and Tracey Martin children and seniors.

Mr Jones, outspoken and often controversial, the unashamed champion of the provinces, continues to hand out millions of dollars to selected projects. The day of reckoning will come when those projects thrive or fail, but that is for another year.

What may not be easily realised is that in this coalition government, NZ First effectively controls defence and foreign policy.

As foreign Minister, Mr Peters has quietly shifted emphasis away from China and towards the United States. Not in ways that makes waves, but it is happening and his Pacific Reset policy underpins it.

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James Shaw Photo: RNZ

The Greens, Labour's other partner party, holds nowhere near the power wielded by NZ First.

Co-leader James Shaw, by far the Greens' most competent MP, has the climate change portfolio and while that's important it isn't one that grabs public attention.

Mr Shaw works mostly under the media's radar while the rest of the caucus make their appeals, often unheard, for social justice, environmental sustainability and animal welfare.

Eugenie Sage, the conservation minister, has discovered that dealing with issues such as mining and fishing the way the Green Party would like her to doesn't always stack up with reality.

Julie Anne Genter after biking to hospital

Julie-Anne Genter rode her bike to the hospital. Photo: Instagram/ Julie Anne Genter

Julie-Anne Genter, who is minister for women and holds the associate transport portfolio, is making her mark with a new approach to road safety while Marama Davidson, the other co-leader, is in need of a profile makeover.

The government can head into 2019 confident of its stability, but there are some big challenges in the New Year.

It has set up numerous reviews and inquiries into vital issues including health, justice and mental health. The rubber hits the road when those reports come in and ministers have to decide what to actually do about them.

This is, by its own claim, a transformational government. The status quo or minor tweaking won't do.

* Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

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